by Hank Leukart
January 21, 2013
Powered by Fado
Road tripping Northern Portugal.
A mural of famous Portuguese Fado singers adorns the Fado Museum in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood.
ISBON, Portugal — “As far as I can tell, there are only THREE roads that lead to the top, and we’ve tried all of them,” I say to my brother Brian, as he attempts to weave our rental car through the narrow streets of Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood, chauffeuring me and my mom in Portugal. “I don’t think it’s possible to get to the palace!” We’re trying to drive to our hotel, the exquisite Palacio Belmonte, which sits on the top of a hill above the city — but, parked cars blocking roads, “ACESSO RESTRITO” signs, and large steel pylons seem to greet us at every possible turn.
“There’s nowhere to go!” my brother exclaims as he drives around a car parked literally in the middle of the street. “And, what is going on with the parking rules in this country?! Are people allowed to just park wherever they want?”
We’re just one hour into our grand, self-planned, Portugal family road trip, and I’m afraid that it’s already a bust. Maybe, I think, this road trip was ill-conceived from the beginning. I’ve slowly become a kind-of de facto travel agent for my family and friends, a phenomenon that any tech-worker or doctor will tell you is like being Hugh Grant: it’s nice to be needed, but sometimes you wish it weren’t in the same role you’ve played 100 times before. For this trip, my family gave me two requirements for a Christmas road trip: my mom wanted to go somewhere warmer than Ohio in the winter, and my brother didn’t want to fly more than eight hours away from New York. I eliminated North Africa (because I spent nine weeks there last year), making the best remaining winter options Portugal and Greece. Since my mom had already been to Greece, we all agreed upon Portugal, but we didn’t take into account the difficulty of driving Lisbon’s Alfama when we made the decision.
Exasperated, Brian doesn’t know what to do, so he steps on the accelerator and drives the car directly toward the steel pylon blocking the road. To all of our amazement, the pylon disappears, seemingly magically, into the pavement.
“In all my travels, I’ve never seen a pylon disappear by itself like that,” I say, as Brian drives through a narrow, red gate into a courtyard in front of the hotel.
“This is not a hotel — it’s a guest palace,” explains Maria, the dark-haired, middle-aged, attractive manager of the Palacio Belmonte, as she leads us to our suite through a perplexing maze of stately rooms and ornate doors. “My family, with 17 children, will be having a Christmas Eve dinner here if you’d like to join us.” She glances at a strange, half-constructed, abstract Christmas tree, made from wire and pages from a fashion magazine. “Sorry, we’re not quite done with the tree.”
“Wow,” my brother says as we pass through a long dining room fit for a king, furnished with a 20-foot-long table, ornate candle chandeliers, and walls adorned by swaths of azulejos, intricately painted, ceramic Portuguese tiles. The pastoral scenes made from tiles decorated with blue paint are so rich and detailed that we spend a half hour exploring the palace’s rooms, admiring and photographing the wall murals.
After settling in and methodically trying to memorize the complicated escape route from our suite — we realize that if we’ve reached the medieval bathtub room, we’ve gone too far — my mom, Brian, and I wander the snaking cobblestone streets of Lisbon’s Alfama, stopping for traditional Portuguese salted cod and what turns out to be the world’s best fried potato skins at Santo António de Alfama restaurant. With full stomachs, we continue exploring and pass another abstract Christmas tree: this one, a palm with a pyramid of lights built around its base. It occurs to me that there must be no pine trees in Portugal.
As we continue down the hill, our street dead-ends into the Museum of Fado, Portugal’s traditional guitar music. We walk inside and find ourselves listening to renowned Fado musician José Pracana, explaining in a video that Fado, music characterized by melancholy vocals and melodies, is about vigor, not rigor (“O fado não tem que ter rigor, tem que ter vigor!”). In one room, we’re so tired from jet lag that we collapse on the floor, in front of a looping video of performances of renowned Fado singers Carlos do Carmo and Amalia Rodrigues. Maybe it’s because we’re so exhausted, but, we’re mesmerized, and we become instant Fado fans.
Afterward, we decide to eat dinner at A Baiuca, a small Alfama seafood restaurant known for its mid-dinner Fado performances. While we eat, a group of wine-drinking regulars, backed by two guitarists sitting on a bench in the corner, takes turns singing Fado songs. First, two men perform: a middle-aged, tired-looking Carlos do Carmo look-alike, and a shorter, younger man in a tweed jacket. Though I can’t understand the Portuguese song lyrics, I’m pretty sure the men are listing their life regrets. Then, a man who looks like he’s been drunk for the past twenty years (with most of his teeth missing to prove it) performs, with vocals far worse than those of the first two acts, but with a passion far surpassing everyone we’ve seen thus far — which, we now know from our museum visit, is the point of Fado. Later, to our amazement, one of the restaurant’s cooks, wearing a hairnet and a smock, wanders out from the kitchen and sings an impressive number. But, our favorite singer is a graying man in his sixties whose voice is so beautiful and melancholy that I can’t help but wonder how his wife deals with becoming depressed and forlorn every morning after hearing his perfect voice from the shower.
On Christmas Eve, after managing to escape our “guest palace’s” medieval bathtub room (somehow, we always end up there when trying to navigate our way out of the maze), we decide to drive to Sintra, a small, nearby town known for its 19th-century Romantic palaces and mist-enveloped forests, to visit Pena National Palace, which sits on a peak above the town. On the way out of Lisbon, after driving through another magically disappearing pylon, we encounter another man who has parked his car squarely in the middle of the road. When my brother honks the horn, the man gestures unhelpfully, giving the impression that he doesn’t believe that he’s doing anything wrong.
By now, we’re all starting to understand the subtleties of Portuguese culture.
“Oh, no problem! We can squeeze by!” my brother says as he drives around the man. “It’s about vigor, not rigor!”
“Our trip runs on passion! The passion of Fado!” I yell, and, soon, we’re speeding down the highway toward Sintra.
Read the second essay in this series about road tripping Northern Portugal, in which we take a Chinese man to the least scenic destination in fairy-tale Sintra.
How to Take a Portugal Road Trip
- OVERVIEW: Portugal is a small country in size, but it’s rich in culture, food, and wine — making it perfect for an enjoyable and manageable European road trip.
- LOGISTICS: Fly the to Lisbon International Airport and rent a car. We rented from Europcar, but we got the best rate by using US rental car consolidator Auto Europe. If you use Auto Europe, however, make sure that the primary driver makes the reservation and that the primary driver’s credit card is used to pick up the car. It was a lot of trouble to make changes to the driver and credit card once we were in person at Europcar. We brought unlocked iPhone 5s to Portugal and purchased SIM cards from Vodafone Portugal at the Lisbon airport. For about €10, the Vita Total Smartphone plan provides a nano-SIM card pre-loaded with about 50 minutes of calls, 250 SMS, and 500 MB of data, all of which works anywhere in Portugal for 15 days.
- ITINERARY: Our road trip focused on northern Portugal, though travelers with enough time may want to add the Algarve and Cape St. Vincent onto the end of their trip:
- DAY 1 - 3: Lisbon is Portugal’s striking capital city. Be sure to see the Lisbon Cathedral, the Jerónimos Monastery, and eat a Pastéis de Belém at the Casa Pastéis de Belém. Go shopping in the Baixa, enjoy Fado in the Alfama, and grab a drink in the Bairro Alto. Hotel: The Palacio Belmonte is an exceptionally beautiful guest palace next to the Castle of São Jorge, and the breakfast is outstanding.
- DAY 4: Sintra is a fairytale town filled with surreal palaces and dreamlike gardens; do not miss the Pena National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. Hotel: See the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais’s cream and gold interior design whether you decide to stay there or not.
- DAY 5: Tomar, Alcobaça, and Óbidos: Tomar’s Castle and Convent of the Order of Christ is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a famous round church, the Monastery of Alcobaça is a gothic masterpiece with a cool kitchen, and Óbidos is a beautiful, well-preserved medieval town. Hotel: The Pousada de Óbidos is in a wing of a castle at the top of a hill above the town.
- DAY 6: Porto is Portugal’s second largest city and is known for Portugal’s most famous international export, port wine. In Vila Nova de Gaia, tourists can see the wine “caves” where Port wine is stored and aged before being shipped around the world. We visited Taylor’s Port Wine, one of Porto’s oldest founding Port houses and the only remaining one that is family-owned. Hotel: On the banks of the Douro River, the Palácio do Freixo is a National Monument with modern furnishings.
- DAY 7: The Duoro Valley is Portugal’s wine grape growing region. Hotel: Quinta Do Vallado is one of the oldest estates in the Douro Valley. The exceptionally comfortable, onsite Wine Hotel has an 18th-century, refurbished 5-room Mannor House and a newer, 8-room, modern hotel. The vineyard also offers tours of their operation, wine tastings, cooking classes, outdoor excursions, and excellent meals in the onsite restaurant.
- DAY 8: Évora is a well-preserved medieval town and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hotel: The Pousada de Évora was originally a monastery, built in 1485.
- DAY 9 - 11: The Algarve and Cape St. Vincent are two great destinations to visit in southern Portugal if enough time remains.
Things to Do in Lisbon
- EXPERIENCE FADO: Fado is classical Portuguese guitar music, characterized by melancholy vocals and melodies. First, visit the Fado Museum in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood. Then, visit A Baiuca, a restaurant that serves up seafood and Fado. The music is much better than the food.
- VISIT BELÉM AND EAT AN EGG TART: Belém is a neighborhood in Lisbon with a high concentration of monuments and sights, including the Monument to the Discoveries, Belém Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, Maritime Museum, Coach Museum, and Berardo Collection Museum. Drive there or take Bus 28 or the Train Cascais. When you’re done for the day, stop at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, where Portugal’s famous egg tart pastry — invented by Catholic Monks in the Jerónimos Monastery — has been sold since 1837.
- TAKE TRAM 28 THROUGH THE ALFAMA: Riding a public tram is a quintessential Lisbon experience, and Tram 28 is one of only three traditional trams still operating. Tram 28 takes riders up the steep hills of the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. Along the way, you can stop and visit the Lisbon Cathedral, the Castle of São Jorge, the Fado Museum, cafes, and Fado restaurants.
- VISIT THE BAIRRO ALTO AT NIGHT: The Bairro Alto is filled with traditional Portuguese restaurants and bars, great for those looking for nightlife.